Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe's best known book is a remarkable and intimate journey through the maze of ethics, fatherhood, and responsibility. The protagonist Bird is a dreamer; he dreams of going to Africa, of undemanding love, of a perfect son - none of which are within his grasp. His child is born with a herniated brain, and his wife's obstetrician is already talking excitedly about an autopsy as the baby, a boy, continues to live. This stubborn will to live, and Bird's responsibility to decide his son's fate, drives Bird deep into denial. If he doesn't do anything, then the baby might die naturally, and Bird will be free of the deformity that threatens to reflect ill on him as a man and husband. But his wife wants their child to survive; she wants to name him, to love him. And Bird begins to question his first inclinations. His touching relationship with his mistress Himiko only reinforces his sense of inadequacy and cowardice - until, that is, he begins to accept life as it is. This stark, haunting novel leaves the reader with a deep sense of both loss and hope, although the latter is more, in Bird's mind, "forbearance." Oe's honest treatment of this difficult subject matter is sensitive and skilled, understated in a way that emphasizes the magnitude of what Bird faces. John Nathan's translation provides smooth, beautifully-rendered prose. The subject matter may be too depressing for some readers but should appeal to those interested in quality literature. The issues Oe tackles are significant, and his characters, deeply human. A PERSONAL MATTER is an unforgettable novel not to be missed.
No easy way out2001/3/16
In this, his most famous book (says the blurb on the cover) Oe examines the devastation, fear and shame of fathering a brain-damaged child. This interpretation is oddly off-mark. "A Personal Matter" does not really examine these issues; it examines how a man avoids facing his own, quite different feelings. A sense of shame does pervade the novel, but it is an emotion that is felt most strongly by characters who think in a more conventionally Japanese way. Bird, the main character of the novel, is a 27-year old man in a failing marriage. He teaches at a cram school and dreams of escaping to Africa. He is drifting through a life that has no meaning or direction (not that he bothers). The birth of his brain-damaged son forces him to face the question "what is the right thing to do for me?". He dodges the question as long as he can, plunging headlong into a drinking binge, a sexual affair, and eventually a scheme to have his son killed by a quack doctor. But the question does not go away. It is his very own personal matter. No one can help him. The question corners him (not surprisingly, several scenes of the novel prominently feature blind alleys), and finally he finds HIS answer. Or rather, the answer finds him - he did not consciously look for it. More than anything that is impressive about this novel - the evocation of a stifling atmosphere, the restrained, matter-of-fact tone of the narrator, the stark realism, the depiction of the sense of shame and horror that the birth of a handicapped child evokes in the Japanese - more than all these things I admired how Oe managed to convey a sense of the unconscious humanity of the man Bird (who, after all, does not live up to any moral standards when he begins an affair while, at the same time, his wife is about to give birth in hospital). The book has a very real background: In 1963, Oe's own son was born with a brain hernia. The doctors predicted that the boy would be severely retarded and gave him little chance of living any significant amount of time. Oe almost decided to abandon the boy. But before he did, he went to a memorial for those killed at Hiroshima, and there he realized that he could not take the easy way out. Today, the boy is as old as I am, and he leads a more or less independent life as an artist in Japan.
A personal journey1998/11/20
This book is about human responsibility. Bird, the teacher of a cram-school, has always, in his own words, been running away--from himself, from his marriage, from society, and from the duties he owes to his newly-born deformed child. The place which embodies his escapist tendency, where he self-deceivingly believes happiness resides, is Africa. He collects maps of Africa and buys books written by African writers. The author depicts a spiritually and morally empty modern Japan whose citizens, like Bird and Kimiko, live purposeless lives. Their quiet reckless acts of abandon hidden and bound behind a quiet orderly society reveal an intense desperation that is so insidiously harmful on the psyche because it cannot take form in overt revolt. This desperation can take either the aimless route of escapism or the dead-end road of suicide, to which the author has admitted his life had been heading. Kimiko's husband committed suicide for no apparent reason, thenceforth causing the wife to go on a crash course of sexual abandon. Bird's irresponsible sexual escapades with Kimiko are despicable, in light that his child and wife are committed to hospitals, but one is sympathetic to his degraded condition. One's knows that the birth of this monstrous child is the ultimate test, from which he will be surface like a hero from the darkness if he is able to confront his despicable character, take moral responsibility for his actions, and assume responsibility for others besides himself. His psychological journey is the mythic journey that all humans must take at least once in their lifetime. The book's unadorned language that sometimes borders on realistic crudeness is a marked contrast to Kawabata's poetic simplicity and Mishima's detailed psychological analysis. His unconventional and sometimes very strange adjectives take some time to put into perspective. Kenzaburo's unabashed depictions of raw sex are in a way refreshing, only because they show a side of human sexuality that is most likely more in tune with the prosaic state of contemporary society.
a great novel2000/11/26
Orrin C. Judd
Japan has lost the power to connect the principle or theory and reality. I think literature's value is in making those connections. That's the mission of literature. Morals are significant. -Kenzaburo Oe Kenzaburo Oe is probably the most highly regarded of Japan's post-war novelists and A Personal Matter is certainly his best known book. It is the harrowing, semi-autobiographical story of a parent's worst nightmare and of a brutal moral dilemma. As the novel opens, the twenty-something protagonist, whose immaturity is reflected in the fact that he retains his boyhood nickname of Bird, anxiously awaits the birth of his first child, but dreams of escaping his mundane domestic life in Japan and traveling instead to Africa. When Bird's son is born with a herniated brain--one doctor nervously giggles that it looks like he has two heads--he faces a choice between starving the child to death or financing exorbitantly expensive surgery with little chance of success. Even a successful operation is likely to cause significant brain damage. Overwhelmed, Bird seeks to avoid his responsibilities by twittering--like his namesake--between alcohol, an old girlfriend and his African fantasies, avoiding his job, his wife, his child and most of all, the decisions which need to be made. Just hours after finally delivering the child to a back alley abortionist who will kill him and preparing to use the money he has saved up not on the prospective surgical procedures, but to run away to Africa with his girlfriend, Bird has an epiphany in a gay bar and, at last, determines to grow up and accept the mantle of responsibility that he has always sought to avoid. The story ends with the baby having been successfully operated on, though his future mental development remains in doubt, and with Bird's father-in-law telling him that his childish nickname is no longer appropriate because he is a changed man. It is an open secret that the Nobel Prize has become little more than a politically correct constituency plum in recent years, so the prospect of reading a novel by an eminent left-wing Japanese novelist honestly filled me with dread. I was totally unprepared for this fierce, beautiful passion play and was pleasantly surprised by the stark, noirish prose style of Oe's writing. The brutally direct sentences of this brief novel present an unforgettable portrait of a man wrestling with a stark moral choice, one that lies at the center of much of our own politics, but which is seldom faced honestly. The fact that Oe's own son was born with a herniated brain only serves to add another layer of tension to an already unbearably tense tale. When Bird chooses life and himself becomes a man it is truly one of the most moving and gratifying moments of spiritual triumph in all of literature. Bird emerges as a heroic but very human figure. I can't imagine any reader being unaffected by this book; in fact, I can easily imagine readers being haunted by it. This is a great novel. GRADE: A+
Macbeth is Not Shakespeare's Greatest Play2009/9/19
The Magic Flute is not Mozart's greatest opera. Do you catch my drift? "A Personal Matter" is not Kenzaburo Oe's greatest novel, but it is definitely great. Like many of Dickens's novels, the conclusion seems too deliberately conclusive and somewhat forced. Until the last chapter, however, this is a novel of such searing emotional terror that most readers will be grateful for its unexpected 'hopeful' ending.
"A Personal Matter" is easily Oe's most popular novel, outselling all others by a huge margin both in Japan and outside. That's easy to explain. It's his easiest, most traditional narrative, strictly chronological, told by an 'omniscient' narrator whose omniscience is obviously a mask for the author's projection of his own consciousness into his character named Bird. There is none of Oe's usual deliberate disorder and allusive/elusive obscurity. Plenty of 'shocking' scenes occur, but for Kenzaburo Oe this novel is almost chaste in its depictions of perversity and violence. If the reader is at all acquainted with Oe's other books, or with Oe's true 'personal matter' behind Bird's crisis, it's not hard to intuit that the author wanted and needed a simple structure, distanced from himself, to work out the anguish of his imagination.
Oe's personal matter was the birth of his first child, a son, with severe brain damage. That was in 1963. In 1964, Oe wrote two 'accounts' of his experience, this novel "A Personal Matter" and the short story "Aghwee the Sky Monster". Prior to 1963, most of Oe's writings had focused on the catastrophes of recent Japanese history: the war, the collapse of the Japanese identity along with the de-deification of the Emperor, and the bombing of Hiroshima. Since 1963, Oe's most powerful writing has traced the evolution of his fatherhood, of his intense bonding with his unique son. Oe the man has been a difficult, eruptive, unmanageable person, whose identity-pains inflate to fill any space he enters. From so much pain, so much humanity!
Oe would have been a great writer even if his son had been born in mediocre normalcy. Once in a while, I persuade myself that I can write, if not popularly at least honestly, but Oe's 'honesty' to his own craft as a writer and to his own humanity leaves me gasping in awe. This is the same honesty that I admire in the writings of WG Sebald. Neither Oe nor Sebald is bound to literal veracity, fact for fact, in their obviously autobiographical fictions. Both of them shape their lives imaginatively in their story-telling. But Oe's imagination comes closer to Reality than anyone else's 'swear-on-a-bible' truth. Think of the greatest autobiographers of the past -- Augustine, Rousseau, De Quincey, Lowell -- and get ready for an Oe who spills his guts more courageously than any of them.